Friday, January 31, 2014

Seeking a Dream in the Far West


Captain Orin O  England
72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Vicksburg, 1863
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center

General Ralph Buckland spoke of Orin England as one of his most trusted aides during his Civil War service with the72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Enlisting as a private at the age of 21, England rose rapidly through the ranks to company command. After the loss of the regimental colors at the Battle of Shiloh, it was England whom Buckland entrusted with carrying the new colors from Fremont, Ohio to the headquarters of the 72nd.  Buckland appointed the steadfast soldier his aide-de-camp and then inspector general of the Military District of Memphis.
But the military was not for him. After the war, England returned to Fremont and married his sweetheart Cordelia Norton. He dreamed of becoming a"tin man," better known today as the owner of a hardware store. What happened to this fine Civil War officer? Did he achieve his dream?
The records of the Homestead Act, signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, held the answer. Under the act, Civil War veterans, women, African Americans, and immigrants  from throughout Europe could claim 160-acre tracts from the government by "proving up" their claims. The agreement included building a house, cultivating a portion of the ground, and living on the tract for 6 months each year for five years. No one knows how many thousands of Civil War veterans took advantage of the Homestead Act, but the deal was especially attractive for them.  The government allowed veterans to deduct their time in the military from the 5-year rule.  In ten years, homesteaders claimed more than 4 1/2 million acres!

The Homestead Act lured England and his wife west. With their 6 children, they "proved up" a tract outside Wessington Springs, South Dakota nearly a 1,000 miles from Fremont. They were part of what became known as the "Third Dakota Land Boom." This rush for land was triggered by the Great Northern Railroad that was pushing west. Also joining the boom were Charles and Caroline Ingalls, who became famous through the writings of their daughter Laura Ingalls Wilder in the "Little House" books. Their 160-acre homestead was near De Smet, a mere 70 miles from where the Englands settled. No doubt the England family faced similar hardships: backbreaking labor, loneliness, crop failures, and harsh winters.  Orin England eventually claimed three 160-acre tracts and another under the Timber Act, a law that encouraged homesteaders to plant trees.

The Homestead Act gave many Americans an opportunity for a new life, but fraud and failure were just as common.  Railroads, land jobbers, and states often acquired enormous tracts of the best lands.  Native Americas were frequently displaced and cheated. And valuable public timberlands fell prey to speculators.

One thing was certain. Homesteading made it possible for Captain Orin England to achieve his dream.  He started a successful hardware store on Wessington Springs' main street and later owned a blacksmith and woodworking shop, and a feed mill.  He helped establish a coal and grain co-op and was elected Jerauld County commissioner. The England homestead outside town became one of the finest ranches in the area.  In their last years, the Englands passed on that hardware store to the next generation and spent their final years  with their daughters in Pasadena, California's warm sunshine.

Mountain View Cemetery
Courtesy of Find a Grave


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